Yesterday afternoon we had a Reconciliation Service in connection with the guided retreat I’m giving at St. Ignatius Retreat House this week. The reading I picked for the service was the story in Luke’s Gospel of the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus the tax collector.
When I was growing up, no one spoke in terms of the “Sacrament of Reconciliation.” We said we were going to “confession” (which we did in my Catholic grade school with regularity, at least once a month) or we spoke of the “Sacrament of Penance.”
Something very different is conveyed by using the terms “confession” or “penance” than by using the term “reconciliation. “Confession” and “penance” put the operative action on our side, making it sound like it is all about us. I confess my sins, I am sorry and do penance. All the focus is one me…and my sinfulness.
Speaking instead about Reconciliation puts the focus on God, who invites us to be reconciled to him. It puts foremost in our minds the important truth that Reconciliation is more about God’s actions than about mine. It is first and foremost about God’s love and willingness to welcome us home no matter how far we have strayed. (What comes to mind is the image of the father in the Prodigal Son parable, standing anxiously at the gate, hoping and waiting for the son’s return.) The theologian Michael Himes observes that “like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”
This is why I think the story of Zacchaeus is such a good one to reflect on in connection with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is Zacchaeus, the tax collector and cheat. He stands removed from the others, up in a tree, because he cannot see above the crowds. He was unpopular, definitely not what we think of as a good person. Not someone who was on the guest list of most people’s dinner parties. Most people wanted nothing to do with him; some thought he was vile, others simply thought he was unimportant.
But when Jesus spies the little man up in the tree, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. He effectively says: it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I still want to be your friend. I still want to be in relationship with you. And it is Jesus’ greeting Zacchaeus with such joy and welcome that causes Zacchaeus to be remorseful for his past bad deeds and to promise to give half of his possessions to the poor and recompense all those he has cheated.
God loved Zacchaeus first, and that allowed him to respond back in love. Reconciliation is an invitation to get in touch with the great love God has for us. The love evidenced by Jesus’ embrace of Zacchaeus.
Jesus often told people: Go your sins are forgiven. In hearing the words of absolution during the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are reminded that in our blindness, in our lapses from grace, in our sinfulness – we are fully embraced by God’s love. And it is that love and forgiveness of God an our confidence and knowledge of that love and forgiveness that allow us to look at our brokenness and to take the necessary steps to healing.